On a Thursday night in June 2002, Bay Area metal fans packed into San Francisco's Justice League to hail their heroes, High on Fire, whose blistering second album, Surrounded by Thieves, was just out. The local trio did not disappoint. Nor, for that matter, did the opening act.
Then a little-known band from Atlanta, Mastodon was more than just a labelmate to the headliner. High on Fire had taken the group whose members first met at a High on Fire show in the basement of Mastodon's guitarist-to-be under its wing, touting and bringing it on tour as a "brother" band. When the Southerners commenced their set, the intensity of the bass physically shook the building. Sternums vibrated. Sphincters quivered. It was unusually visceral, even for a metal show.
In an interview a month later, Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor noted the added exposure High on Fire was providing: "At the moment it's the perfect combination of bands, us and High on Fire," he told MetalUpdate.com. "I've seen our popularity as a band grow three times as much as the previous times we've toured around."
High on Fire frontman Matt Pike was happy for his friends, though understandably a tad envious. High on Fire is a band with history. It had paid its dues, touring tirelessly, working hard on its sound, and slowly building up a rabid fan base without the help of MTV and commercial radio airplay. But its brother band was on a dizzying ascent. "Mastodon met at our show and then we took them on tour, and when we got back, the whole town was raving about them," Pike said during an interview with this reporter in 2005. "They kind of got on our bandwagon. They're blowing up like crazy."
He wasn't kidding. Now on Warner Bros., Mastodon plays the big metal festivals, tours with the likes of Slayer, and has appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. It has songs in videogame soundtracks, album sales totaling hundreds of thousands, and has charted singles in the US and the UK.
High on Fire's slower rise isn't for lack of talent. On the contrary, the musicians just prefer to do things their own way. Like its East Bay hometown, the band isn't flashy or trendy, but rather gritty and dedicated. It emerged from the Bay Area punk and metal scene, which found its home in dingy warehouses and bars with questionable emergency exits.
For the band's debut, The Art of Self-Defense, guitarist/singer Pike, bass player George Rice, and drummer Des Kensel built on the droning, Sabbath-inspired pothead sound (and cultish popularity) of Pike's former San Jose outfit, Sleep, to become a more aggressive, driven animal. With Surrounded, the band established itself as unabashed metal.
Although High on Fire has gone through a few bass players Jeff Matz, formerly of Zeke, now handles those duties it has earned adoration from critics at some of the nation's top newspapers, music magazines, and Web sites. The Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl called the band's third album, Blessed Black Wings, "the most brutal metal album I've heard in years." AllMusic.com deemed High on Fire "one of the most widely respected heavy metal outfits on the planet." And in February, Rolling Stone named Pike one of twenty "New Guitar Gods," alongside John Mayer, Derek Trucks, and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood.
Despite all the accolades, the band members still struggled to get by. Until a couple of years ago, Pike and Kensel earned a living by digging ditches. Pike only recently quit his job as a barback and security guard at the downtown Oakland bar Radio. "We're doing better than we have ever that makes me happy," Pike said. "But I fucking ate shit to do it. I don't think we got half of what we deserve."
Now, with the recent release of its fourth album, Death Is This Communion, High on Fire finally seems positioned to invade the metal mainstream. The last album sold 35,000 copies. And they consistently sell out 300-to-1,000-capacity venues around the world. "I think this is the record that High on Fire's gonna break," said longtime band manager Todd Cote. "Because the momentum has been building for three records."
It's not that simple, of course. If there's anything the band members have counted on, it's that the brutality of their sound, which has helped drive their popularity, was born of the very struggles from which they seek to free themselves. "I believe that struggling is a major component to this band," Pike said recently, sitting on a couch in the West Oakland warehouse he calls home. "We've always struggled and, I dunno, that's why it's such, like, angry music, or somber music, because it's never been like a fucking cakewalk to us."
Matt Pike doesn't like to get too touchy-feely about his past, but in prior interviews he's revealed that his childhood was far from ideal. He was raised by his mother in Golden, Colorado, in a home frequented by Hell's Angels. In high school, Pike became a delinquent, stealing car stereos to feed a developing drug habit.
Music was a constant in his life. Pike's uncle and grandfather played to him as a baby, and at eight, he convinced his mother to buy him a guitar. Skinny and awkward, he gravitated toward metal bands such as Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Slayer, and Exodus. Later, his tastes expanded to include punk bands such as the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, and the Exploited. He played a single show with his first band, a half-thrash, half-glam group called Desire.
But Pike's criminal activities caught up to him. After spending time in juvenile hall and military school, Pike was sent to live with his father in San Jose.
Upon arrival, the seventeen-year-old discovered a thriving music scene. While still in high school, he began playing guitar in a doom-metal band called Asbestosdeath. It gained a decent local following before transforming into Sleep in 1990.
It was Sleep that established Pike as an up-and-coming guitarist. Mixing drug-induced psychedelia with hazy, weighty guitar riffs, Sleep became instrumental in the so-called stoner-metal movement. The band released two critically praised albums, which led to a major-label deal. But the ensuing album, a single, sixty-minute drone of a song, was shelved. They broke up.
Meanwhile, some three thousand miles away, Des Kensel was drumming in a hardcore punk band, oblivious to Sleep's cult popularity. Raised in New Haven, Connecticut, Kensel picked up the drums at age ten and grew up listening to a cocktail of metal, rock, and punk.
By fifteen, Kensel was a regular at New York's CBGB. A friend from high school worked the sound there and sneaked him in. He remembered that once, while drinking at the bar at 5 a.m., a metal chick started dancing in front of him. "After that, it sucked me into the lifestyle," he said. In 1996, he threw his drums in his car and drove out to the Bay Area.
A couple of years later, Kensel and Pike both were looking for someone to play with. Hooked up by a mutual friend, they clicked immediately. Pike's friend George Rice auditioned on vocals but took up the bass instead, so Pike became a singer for the first time.
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